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I participated in SCIENCE!

2010/07/18 Comments off

Extracurricular science, anyway. See, I’d run across a story about an educational/research related water resources game a few months ago, got all excited about getting to play what sounded like a watershed management game online, and then nothing. Turns out the game isn’t actually online in the sense that anyone can play but online meaning some researcher could run it from a computer lab. Not the same, people. Fast forward to last week when a flyer went up in the lobby of my building asking for participants to play a water resources game. I am not afraid to say that I made an enormous, and erroneous, assumption. Namely that the local game was related to the first game. I’m not sure who else I made an ass of other than myself (and that I did privately, thank you), but I spent some time this afternoon participating in some SCIENCE! regardless. Wearing socks that didn’t match.

So the today’s game had nothing to do with the educational game played somewhere near the Chesapeake. And didn’t really seem to be a game at all. It seemed much more like an in-class demonstration of game theory with a survey tacked on the end. I’m pretty sure that the researchers are trying to suss out something about people’s attitudes towards farmers (as sources of nonpoint source pollution) given an individual’s stance on the environment. Maybe. I honestly can’t imagine what they’re going to get from this that wasn’t already out there. But maybe there was some ulterior motive like how long did we take to answer the questions or something.

Oh well. I think from now on I’ll stick to counting fireflies or marking craters on the moon for my extracurricular science activities. Unless someday someone puts a watershed management game online. That would be a little bit of awesome.

Daylight savings. Thpbbpt.

2009/11/01 Comments off

In all of the calculations that they put into deciding when daylight savings should be and how much awesome money we’ll save on energy, etc, did it not once occur to anyone that maybe ensuring that we now leave work (assuming 9-5 hours) in the dark is utterly depressing? And depressing in a way that, hooray, it’s light when I leave for work just doesn’t compensate for. It wouldn’t surprise me if we spend all of our energy savings (and that is actually an uncertain premise) on things to combat the ick.

Categories: environment Tags:

The green broken record

2009/10/31 Comments off

The mid-sized college town where I currently reside prides itself on being a healthy, decent place to raise your kids. Decent schools, safe neighborhoods, lots of volunteerism, good old-fashioned American values. So in the spirit of civic responsibility and making the community an even better place, the university and the mayor’s office put on a couple of sustainability conferences this year. All well and good—we got to hear a bit from local officials or experts about what’s being done or what might be done to create a sustainable community, have a cookie or two (while I am not a grad student, the free cookie bribe still has a wickedly strong pull), and then meet in smaller groups to discuss possible action items. These groups were divided into higher education, business and community as a way to focus the brainstorming.

I attended the community session both times. At the first conference, quite a large number of community activists attended and the session got a little heated in the traditional diehard greenie vs. evil business owner way. The second time around, we seemed to have lost the unaffiliated community activist crowd (i.e. most attendees worked for a green business, a local or state enviro agency, a local-ish university, etc, but not the guy trying to organize folks in his neighborhood to protect green space or what have you). So the session did not involve any heated arguments and instead devolved into a different, but still traditional, let’s brainstorm about eco-friendly things we could do to make the place better. Like educate people about recycling, water and energy conservation, walkable communities, etc. The only vaguely original idea I heard was using woody biomass to supply all of the energy needs of the university (good luck with that, really).

And that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? We’re still having the same conversations; we’re still talking about the same solutions; we’re still holding on to this idea that we just need to educate people more and the problems will magically go away. Let’s take recycling, since that was one of the main themes at the session. The action item that a lot of people agreed on was that we needed more education programs to get homeowners and businesses to recycle more. Because it was a lack of awareness that’s the problem.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had recycling education in some way or another for twenty-something years. So at this point a lot of those kids who have heard about recycling and how important and easy it is for years are parents and employees. Their kids are getting the same education about recycling. And yet, the common complaint is that the neighbors aren’t recycling, just look at all of that cardboard and plastic stacked up on the curb. And these same people, educated about recycling, aren’t recycling at the office either. So, yes, absolutely, what we should do is try educating people more because we just haven’t told them enough about recycling to get the response we want.

This is when I brought up some of the things people have tried with nudges, that concept of tweaking something in the environment to get people to make the preferred choice. I was thinking about my power bill rather than recycling and comparing the experiences here with those I had in Arizona. My Arizona bill included a chart showing my usage over the last year; my current bill just acknowledges the amount I paid the previous month. So here, unless I go back to previous bills, I can’t really tell if I’m doing better or worse this month or compare this month to last year. There’s no feedback, positive or negative. (There’s a power or water company out there that experimented with adding emoticons to the bills to encourage conservation—a smiley if you conserved power or water and a frown if you hadn’t. That little addition was enough to get people to start changing their habits. And I can’t come up with the link right now, sorry.) I have the education; I know that I should conserve power, but I don’t have any easy way to see the results. Given that my life is relatively straightforward, i.e. no spouse or kids to worry about, and yet I still don’t feel like I have the time to spend tracking down previous usage totals for comparison, how do we expect people with lives to do it?

We know the answer—they’re not. And so we’ve missed an opportunity to push them towards the outcome we want. Obviously, recycling is a little trickier. It would require, probably, instituting a pay as you throw billing method and curbside pickup (seriously, if I have to pay to recycle and there are easily four different recycling pickup companies, that is kind of a lot of trouble to go through; no wonder adoption rates are low). We have to start giving people easier ways to incorporate eco-friendly actions into their daily lives. And feedback to give that little extra something to motivate them to do it.

But the session ended; my groupmates looked at me like I was nuts when I brought up nudges; and everyone went home feeling pretty good about themselves for doing something good. Status quo, really.

Update: New York Times article about zero waste waste management. Although I hesitate to call required composting and recycling and a national park’s switch to bioplastics a nudge to get people to recycle. They haven’t really made a choice to do those things.

Watersheds are everywhere

2009/10/23 Comments off

Everybody is talking about the Pacific garbage patch these days, following the return of at least one trip out to study it. Which is good because the garbage patch is a troubling thing. But this video just tweaked me a bit (view it here at Treehugger). At one point, a very earnest woman says that the landfill is in the watershed! OMG, not in a watershed! And that right there is the problem. Lady, everything is in a watershed. Every landfill, every house, every coal plant, every car. And almost every watershed is part of a larger system that eventually reaches the ocean (the Great Basin is closed, but not so many people live there so for this discussion we’ll just ignore them). So of course the landfill is in a watershed. And that means that what goes to the landfill has the potential to reach our waterways and the ocean.

That statement just had this kind of NIMBY-ish feel to it. Sort of like “The landfill is in a watershed. Watersheds are these special things. I must not be in a watershed.” You put fertilizer on your lawn—it’s in the watershed. Your neighbor sprays his fruit orchard—it’s in the watershed. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is funneled straight into the ocean. Stuff gets in the fish, in the plants and in the soil. So get a grip and remember, everything is in a watershed.

Watersheds in Massachusetts

Watersheds in Massachusetts

A little confused about CARS

2009/08/04 Comments off

I thought, based on the chatter around the treehugging blogosphere (yes, including treehugger.com), that the cash for clunkers program would not really do much of anything for anybody. Wasn’t the rebate supposed to be very limited in terms of the type of car you could trade in, so much so that few clunkers would actually be eligible?

Also, I would like to remind some of the less thoughtful people that in a lot of the country, having a car is critical to having a job. The pundits screaming about how people shouldn’t be buying cars but rather spending on food and housing are missing one of the fundamental problems with the country—poor public transit, poor planning and so on. Perhaps it’s living in the midwest, far away from large metropolitan centers, but access to reliable transportation in smaller towns can mean having work or not. Or having healthcare or not. Until we can completely redesign the built world we live in, that will probably always be true.

Maybe I’m just annoyed that, again, the people who acted responsibly (i.e. buying a home within their means or buying a good car) get hosed while those that didn’t get bailouts. Or are perceived to get bailouts. Not entirely applicable, but I would like to run around shouting Dunning-Kruger pretty much non-stop these days.

Categories: environment Tags: ,

Biofilm

2009/07/29 Comments off

Um, does the thought of the surface of the ocean as some previously unknown biofilm freak anyone else out? I mean, if it’s on the ocean, why wouldn’t it be on every lake? I jumped in those lakes and the ocean. Granted, there are biofilms everywhere, but still. At least it doesn’t sound nearly as gross as the algae blooms and fertilizer slicks that pollute the reservoirs around here. Ugh.

Just goes to show how much is left to learn.

Categories: environment, Science Tags: ,

Science illiteracy to the Nth degree

2009/07/26 Comments off

From a trailer for the new season of It’s Always Funny in Philadelphia:

Dennis: How is burning trash green?

Charlie: I could stick it in a land fill where it could stay for million years or I could burn it up and let it disappear into the sky where it turns into stars.

Mac: That doesn’t sound right, but I don’t know enough about stars to dispute it.

At least Mac’s willing to admit what he doesn’t know.

Although it does sort of bring up a point about access to science in a tangential way. Even if we all agree that science coverage in the local papers is not great, at least it mentions science. So starting from that, if we take my current place of residence as an example, the population is 250,000 and the subscription rate is around 90,000 for the local paper. So less than 50% of the folks don’t even get the paper (and no you really can’t assume that they are reading it online; I do and you would never know that they ever report any science anything from the website). We could assume as well that some of these people are not watching science-themed TV either and that even if they get the paper, they are not reading the science-y bits. So where are they getting information about current science? Or even basic science? How do you connect with those people? Should you be trying to force science at people whose day to day concern is food and housing? And you can’t ignore that segment of the population (do I need to say environmental justice); to do that would lead to the core of so many futuristic dystopias involving the haves vs. the have-nots, just provide the what. At the end of the day, it gets back to improving the standard of living first (sustainably we’d hope) and then moving on to other things.

It’s not that I demand that everyone knows how a star is made or anything. Maybe we just need to replace some of what people consider common sense with some actual sense.